Handicapping 2010

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jan 25, 2009 12:00 AM

After last Tuesday's pomp, circumstance and, at times, over-the-top love-fest language, it is hard to imagine the Democrats will be especially vulnerable in 2010's races for Congress or state governorships.

From 1934 through 2006, with the exceptions of 1998 (during the Clinton impeachment) and 2002 (following the 9/11 terrorist attacks), a president's party has lost an average of some 26 congressional seats in midterm elections.

In 2010, 34 U.S. Senate seats will be up for grabs, along with all 435 in the U.S. House.

However, with Senate vacancies created by Vice President Joe Biden (Delaware), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (New York) and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (Colorado) forcing special elections in 2010, 36 states face Senate contests -- including New York, with two.

With a special election required in Illinois for the remainder of President Obama's old term, that adds up to 38 Senate contests nationwide.

If health or age create two vacancies in Massachusetts and West Virginia, that would make 40 Senate contests in 38 states, all in one election cycle.

"I sincerely doubt that the Democrats are likely to lose that many in 2010," says Lara Brown, a political scientist at Villanova University.

She expects a net loss of between five and 10 seats in the House.

"The seats to watch are going to be those conservative Democratic or Republican-leaning districts that Democrats picked up in 2006 and 2008," Brown says.

In the Senate, the election turf appears more favorable to Republicans than it did in 2008. Yet with four GOP retirements already announced, it will not be smooth sailing.

Brown says the Florida seat of retiring Sen. Mel Martinez will be especially difficult for the GOP to hold, assuming former Gov. Jeb Bush doesn't backtrack and decide to run. If Republican Rep. Connie Mack runs, though, he would be a formidable challenge for Democrats.

Republicans also have retirement headaches with the Senate seats of George Voinovich of Ohio and Kit Bond of Missouri. Both will be very competitive races on which the GOP likely must spend substantial sums.

Democrats have to be favored in Ohio, given the strength of the state party and the field of candidates -- but don't discount U.S. Rep. Ron Portman, a Cincinnati Republican, as a candidate who could win.

Pennsylvania's Senate seat held by Arlen Specter is one to watch. Now that a primary race is out of the question, it will be Specter versus one of many potential Democrats.

In Kentucky, Sen. Jim Bunning won in 2004 by just 1 percent. That could be a very close race again, which has Republican decision-makers urging Bunning to retire.

"Senate races -- more so than the House races -- recently have swung with the 'national mood' in elections," says Brown. "You saw Republicans pick up seats in 2002 and 2004, and Democrats pick up seats in 2006 and 2008."

Even if President Obama succeeds in working with Congress to pass legislation, the effects of those policies likely will not yet be felt by Americans in 2010. The public is more than likely to believe that, with Democrats in control, government isn't doing enough.

Barring another economic or foreign-policy crisis, the partisan pendulum is likely to swing once again, and Republicans will do better in 2010 than in the past two elections.

"The only two seats where I imagine that the Republicans will have a chance to take them will be Sen. Salazar's seat in Colorado and Reid's seat in Nevada," Brown says.

Now, knocking off Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would be a moral victory for Republicans, similar to their defeat of former majority leader Tom Daschle in 2004. But that still won't get the GOP anywhere near a 51-vote majority.

Brown says to watch the special election in Illinois; lots of drama playing out there might help Republicans. Will scandal-era-appointed Democrat Roland Burris decide to run for a full Senate term? Will Burris be challenged by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.? What if special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation expands to include more Democrats besides Gov. Rod Blagojevich?

That may make Illinois in 2010 for Democrats similar to Ohio in 2004 for Republicans, when a governor's scandal felled nearly the entire GOP state slate.

For Republicans nationally, it all depends on recruitment. Luckily for them, retirements so far have come early enough to find quality candidates and to raise money.

Their fortunes largely rest on their relationship with President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress: Hold Democrats' feet to the fire, and Republicans could be called "obstructionists"; be too agreeable, and they'll be accused of playing "yellow-bellied roll-overs."